PARIS — Simona Halep threw her racket on the red clay, its redemptive work done for the day, and thrust her arms high overhead as she beamed on a court that has brought her plenty of heartache.
In the stands, Darren Cahill, Halep’s normally pulled-together coach, was unsuccessfully fighting back tears. High up in the commentary booth, Chris Evert, a seven-time French Open champion, was tearing up, too, well aware of how it feels to have a Grand Slam drought come to a happy end.
Already No. 1, Halep proved on Saturday that she could win the big one, too.
After losing her first three major finals, she rallied to defeat Sloane Stephens, 3-6, 6-4, 6-1, to win the French Open and join the ranks of leading players whose perseverance paid off with a major singles title.
“I was dreaming for this moment since actually I started to play tennis,” Halep said. “It’s my favorite Grand Slam. I always said that if I’m going to win one, I want it to be here. It’s real now.”
Evert lost her first three Grand Slam finals before winning the French Open on this same stretch of clay in 1974. Kim Clijsters lost her first four major finals before winning the United States Open in 2005.
“She told me actually she lost four finals before winning,” Halep said of Clijsters. “And today I was like: ‘No! No! No! Not again. Maybe I can do it.’ And I did it.”
Halep was able to do it with a resilience that was emblematic of her performance throughout this 15-day tournament.
“This lady fights her heart out,” Evert said of Halep. “She runs down balls like no other, shows emotion like no other and has had so many disappointments in majors. And now this victory wipes out the past and is so much sweeter.”
Despite being No. 1, Halep had won just one tournament in the past 12 months. But she is now the first Romanian woman in 40 years to win the French Open, the tournament that her mentor and longtime manager, Virginia Ruzici, won in 1978.
Many have offered encouragement in the past four years as Halep tried to rebound from her latest Grand Slam setback. She has questioned herself repeatedly and found a way to improve. She enlisted the full-time help of Cahill, one of the game’s most respected coaches, who also helped Lleyton Hewitt and Andre Agassi win a major title and reach No. 1.
“Darren has been the key man, the key person in her team,” said Ruzici, who was courtside on Saturday. “I think Darren has been fabulous at helping her improve her game on the court, but also helping her to improve her mental attitude. And also she became much more of a relaxed person.”
More recently, Halep has worked with a sports psychologist to learn how to maintain a more positive attitude with titles on the line — and with her home nation supporting her so passionately that it was only increasing the burden.
“They say the destination is more beautiful if it’s a bit of a bumpy road and you eventually get there, and it’s what happened to her today, “ Cahill said. “It’s a magical moment for her, and she did it the hard way against a great opponent.”
To manage it, the top-seeded Halep had to fight back from a set and a service break down, just as the unseeded Jelena Ostapenko did against Halep in last year’s French Open final.
In the early stages on Saturday, Halep could find no holes in Stephens’s defenses as the American glided along the baseline, calmly reading the flow of play as Halep pressed for quicker solutions that were not yet available. It was as if Halep were playing not only on crushed red brick, but also against a red brick wall.
But she did not panic and after falling behind, 0-2, Halep gradually put herself in a better place by forcing errors and finding new angles and opportunities as she varied the trajectories with her forehand and mixed in occasional forays to the net.
She was also a more relentless physical presence throughout, her energy and footwork never flagging. Stephens seemed to become less proactive, less explosive at times, although she said she was not fatigued.
“I was worried with the level of Sloane’s play obviously,” Cahill said. “Simona was having trouble trying to find ways to win easy points. In the end, that probably worked a little bit in her favor because there was no easy way to win points. She had to grind for every point, and you could see Sloane late in the second set starting to get a little bit tired, making a few more errors than she did in the first set. And I think Simona realized that as well and was determined to keep the rallies longer.”
This was indeed a full-blown baseline duel, brimming with slugfest exchanges. Fifty-five of the 160 points were decided in rallies of nine shots or more.
Serving at 4-4, 30-30, Halep was still on the precipice of a straight-sets defeat, but she played two bold points, taking chances and converting with forehands to avert the danger, and held.
After breaking Stephens to even the match at one set apiece, she worked her way to a 5-0 lead in the final set before Stephens held. In all, Halep won 12 of the final 15 games, serving out the match at 5-1.
“I couldn’t breathe very well in the last game at 5-0, and when I lost the game, I said, ‘O.K., I have four more until she gets back,’” Halep said. “So I have just to take ball by ball, point by point. Because last year, I was a little bit defensive when I was leading the match, and now I just change it in my mind.”
Stephens was 6-0 in tour-level finals until Saturday. She won the United States Open last year in only her fourth tournament after returning from nearly a year off the tour because of a foot operation.
Unlike Halep, Stephens already knew what it took to win a major final. But Halep has had a clear edge when they have played head-to-head, and has now won their last five matches.
They are both fleet and fluid baseliners of a similar age: Halep is 26; Stephens is 25. Both can counterpunch and also strike first.
Now they have even more in common, and there have been seven consecutive different women’s singles champions in major events.
“I think she’s had a tough journey,” said the 10th-seeded Stephens, who will rise to a career-high No. 4 in the rankings on Monday. “I’m glad she finally got her first Slam. It’s a beautiful thing, very special. No matter how hard the adversity that you go through, there is always light at the end of the tunnel, and I’m glad she finally got her light.”
Ruzici first saw Halep play when Halep was 14. Ruzici became convinced that Halep could make an impact at the professional level after seeing her win the French Open girls’ title at age 16 in 2008.
Halep reads the game beautifully and flows around the court with a rare grace, but her successful quest for a Grand Slam test also underscored her steely side.
“She’s done a very nice job of being able to put some disappointments behind her and get back to work and keep looking for improvements,” Cahill said.
She first came close to winning the French Open in 2014, losing a three-set final to Maria Sharapova. She got even closer in last year’s final before the big-hitting Ostapenko, just 20 years old, roared back.
That defeat left Halep reeling, and she lost in the first round of last year’s United States Open to Sharapova. But she regained momentum in the final months of the season, rising to No. 1 for the first time.
At this year’s Australian Open, she scrapped her way through the draw. She saved a total of five match points on her way to the final, only to fall just short against Caroline Wozniacki, who won her first major title.
“Maybe the fourth time will be with luck,” Halep told the crowd at the awards ceremony in Melbourne, shortly before checking into a hospital with severe dehydration after the draining three-set match.
The fourth time did turn out to be the charm, and as Halep held the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen in her hands at last while fans chanted “Simona,” just as they had during the match, she looked momentarily confused.
Stephens helped out, raising both of her arms to show Halep what to do with the cup. Halep heeded the advice, one Grand Slam champion relying on another.
“Yeah, show the world your trophy,” Stephens said later. “You have been waiting for this.”